What Is a “Southern Writer,” Anyway?
Interview by Chuck Reece
As I studied the work and history of the novelist Thomas Mullen, I found myself asking the same question again and again.
Just what the hell is a “Southern writer,” anyway?
I knew that Mullen’s second novel, “The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers,” had won the 2012 Townsend Prize, which — in case you don’t know — is awarded biennially “to the Georgia writer judged to have produced the best work of fiction or short stories in the previous two years.” Its past winners include such icons as Alice Walker, Ferrol Sams and Kathryn Stockett. If you’re looking for a Southern Lit seal of approval, the Townsend is a biggie.
But when we were emailing each other to arrange our meeting, Mullen had apologized for his tight schedule this way: “Been a bit consumed with work during the day and Red Sox during the night.”
We finally agreed to meet for coffee at a bakery on the town square of Decatur, Ga., where Mullen and his family have lived for five years. Just four days earlier, an extraordinarily hirsute edition of the Boston Red Sox had taken their third world championship in a decade, smashing the last remaining bits of the Bambino's Curse into dust. As I waited on the victorious baseball fan to arrive, I sat with my coffee and lamented once again my Braves’ utter collapse in the division series.
Me and Tom? We clearly had a lot to talk about.
The Bitter Southerner: So … where’s your beard?
Thomas Mullen: I did not grow a beard, although I am a Red Sox fan.
The BS: What about the Braves?
Mullen: We’ve moved around a lot, but we’ve been in Atlanta for five years, and Atlanta is where we intend to stay. I haven’t lived in Boston for 13 years. I don’t want to be that guy whose kid gets confused about what shirt to wear, where all his friends are Falcons fans, but his dad gives him a Tom Brady jersey. I follow the Braves now. But after the Braves unfortunately folded, it wasn’t that hard to get back in the Red Sox zone. My kids have Braves caps and Falcons jerseys.
The BS: How did you become a writer?
Mullen: I have no idea. It’s just always been what I wanted to do, for as long as I can remember. I wrote imitation kids’ books when I was a kid. Remember the kids’ books “Mr. Happy,” “Mr. Messy,” “Mr. Noisy”? I wrote “Mr. Invisible.” Folded my pages in half and stapled them into a book — my earliest work. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. It’s what I like to do. If too much time goes by and I haven’t written, I get really cranky.
The BS: When you published your first novel (“The Last Town on Earth”), Dreamworks optioned it for a movie and then decided not to make the movie. How does that make a writer feel?
Mullen: It’s very strange. Everything about being a writer is an emotional rollercoaster. You send out your letters to agents, and you get a lot of rejections. That’s a bummer. But then somebody accepts you, and it’s a thrill. It’s always a lot of highs and lows.It’s great that the first novel did well and that Dreamworks paid me some money to option it. I’ve optioned my second book, and I’m hoping that all comes together. I barely understand how publishing works, let alone Hollywood.
The BS: What are the things, apart from the weather, that make you think the South is the right place for you to be?
Mullen: We lived for many years in Washington, D.C., and that’s where we had our first kid. But we did not want to continue to live where we had no family. My wife's family lives here, and we liked the opportunities we saw in Atlanta, and we were ready for a change. We like it here. It's a great place to raise a family, a more comfortable and less stressful environment, and it feels more artistically vibrant. A good place to be a writer.
The BS: Were you a student of Southern literature before you lived here?
Mullen: I wasn’t. It’s funny. We spent probably two years debating where we were going to move. At no time did I stop to think what it would mean to me as a writer. It never entered my thought process at all. It was more family stuff. But after we moved here, I would go to bookstores and see “Southern Literature” sections. And I started to think, what does that mean to me? Am I going to be considered a Southern writer now? Am I going to be left out because I’m not considered a Southern writer? My books are all set in different parts of the country, and none of them were set in the place I was living at the time. It became something I thought about a lot more once I moved here. I’ve been reading a lot more Southern fiction. I’ve also been reading a lot about the history of Atlanta. I like to know the history of where I live, and obviously, there’s a hell of a lot of history here. I’m working now on a book that’s set in Atlanta, so maybe one day I will become a Southern writer. I don’t know.
The BS: Are there particular pieces of Southern literature that have captured your attention?
Mullen: One of my favorite books when I was younger was “Cold Mountain.” That came out a year or two after I came out of college, and it blew my mind. I love Charles Frazier. I love Ron Rash. I love Jesmyn Ward. One of the nice things about being a published author is that you can send another one an email and say, “Hey, I like your book. Wanna get some coffee?” Here in Atlanta, they usually say yes. It’s more laid-back and social here.
The BS: So where did “Last Call at the Stork Hotel” come from?
Mullen: Many years ago, when I was living and working in Washington, a guy I worked with adopted a little girl from China. I was actually sitting right next to him when he got the phone call from his wife saying the adoption had come through and they had a baby. He was shocked. I wasn’t a dad yet myself, but he acted so strangely the rest of the day. His mind was utterly blown. It was sort of like his wife had given birth over the phone. That stayed with me. Then later, I heard his stories about the Stork Hotel. There really is this hotel where all the incoming American parents stay. It’s not called the Stork Hotel, but they nicknamed it that. I thought that was a setting I wanted to do something with. So this story combines his tale with things that happened to my sister. She was a textile designer for many years. She lived in North Carolina and was doing pretty well with it. Then she got laid off. This distinctly Southern industry has pretty much disappeared from the States. There’s a lot of great fiction that has been written in the past few years about the Great Recession and the effect it’s had on people.
The BS: We’d put “Last Call at the Stork Hotel” in that category.
Mullen: Thank you.
“I would go to bookstores and see 'Southern Literature' sections. And I started to think, what does that mean to me? Am I going to be considered a Southern writer now? Am I going to be left out because I’m not considered a Southern writer?"
— Thomas Mullen
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